Here he is, finally standing before us as an honest-to-God human being. Harry Lime is no longer a glossy, larger-than-life übermensch staring down upon his domains, but now a human body, wet and cold in Vienna’s sewers, terrified and running for his life. Harry’s rehumanization is, of course, a combination of carefully crafted stylistic and narrative factors.
From the first, his transference (to borrow a word from psychoanalysis) would not be possible if his entrance into our story hadn’t been so grandiose. The first two thirds of the film swing by without his presence, except as the mythic glue that ties together each of our other characters. This treatment would do much to boost any ego, but when Harry Lime enters the narrative, alive and smirking, the mythic pedestal he stands on has been raised sky high. And when you consider the shot that introduces him, in which his face seems to glow its way off the screen. This would have been only more striking in 1949, since most films were printed on nitrate film base, a substance whose beautiful image was only surpassed by its dangerous flammability. With a nitrate print and a silver screen, though, the moving images were said to glow with a luminescence since unmatched, spawning the term “movie star” for the way actors and actresses lit the theater in close up. Imagine how striking this appearance would be if Welles’ face seemed to be glittering its way out of the darkness of the night sky.
But beyond the power behind that radiant shot, the narrative buildup of 66 minutes of screen time, and even Welles’ larger than life persona (he could never really play an ordinary fellow) it is his character that above all separates him from we mere mortals. His deadly blend of coy charm and callous selfishness make him so beyond our comprehension we can’t help but fall in awe. He is a cruel Machiavellian but a people person nonetheless, and we can’t help but love him even while we fear and hate him, putting us in a position much like Holly’s own. In a way, Harry walks into this film as much more than human, closer to a super-villain or master-mind, but one so cloaked in charm and moxie as to be unrecognizable. Take for instance, this description of Batman’s eternal foe in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth.
Much like this image of the Joker, Harry seems almost more human than human, functioning at a level of “super-sanity” well beyond the realms of normalcy. Harry has moved beyond the level of cognitive dissonance we practice in our every day lives, in order to subscribe to the limitations of society, and graduated into an amoral universe of selfishness and guile. He is a sociopath, as he saunters into this film, but now, chased into the sewers by our heroically moral protagonist, he has sunk to the level of a human, one of the dots he so famously talked about from on high.
The moment of this transformation, as we have noted before, may come not on his end, but on Holly’s. It may come the moment that Holly sees those children, the unseeable children who convince him that he must help to bring in his oldest friend. And maybe that really proves that this film is Holly’s story, not Harry’s as is so often seen. It is in the moment that Holly’s perspective changes that Harry falls from on high, becoming a flesh-and-blood man rather than a haunting shadow. Then, when Harry steps like a particularly clever fly into Harry’s (and Calloway’s and Paine’s) elaborate web, it is as a man and not a god.
And now, as he flees through the sewers, embarrassingly human in his wet shivers, loud footsteps, and even the moist air escaping his mouth in the cold night air, Harry is suddenly vulnerable in a way he has never been. When this film began, he was dead, then he was undead—a spectre or a vampire—but now he is alive and like all living things, he hovers on the brink of his own end. Here, looking off for pursuers in this dark tunnel, Harry seems to be thinking that this might be the last place he will ever see. The comparisons to the hell he once believed in, at least during his catholic school upbringing, seem obvious.
But beyond the metaphysical, his physical comes to the fore. The misty air that visually signifies his breath, the flat lighting that makes his face seem realist and wrinkled, not flawless and shiny, and the fast wordless cutting all combine to make us see a cold, wet man running for his life. Whatever our perspective on Harry’s evil deeds, he is pitiable in this moment as his eyes see the last door closing on his chance of escape. With dogs and guards at all the exits, and teams with lights circling him and getting closer, the expression on his face can only be one of doom.
Freud, who is almost present in this unconscious level of Vienna’s infrastructure, would see the conflict in Harry’s eyes as a conflict between two of his internal drives, which he referred to by various terms. Eros and Thanatos, the libido and destructive tendencies, or simplest of all, the drive to life and the drive to death. Named for the Greek personification of death, Thanatos (whose twin brother Hypnos is sleep and dream personified) became for Freud a part of the essential human condition, or indeed the condition of all life. From Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
It must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are able to take it as a truth that knows no exceptions that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before animate ones’ (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Norton, 1961, pages 45-6).
And so, as Harry faces his own impending doom, be it death or capture, he is facing up to the satisfaction of a drive that has plagued his actions his entire life—a drive to return to the dead matter from whence he came. Of course it is this same drive toward self destruction/death that likely lead Harry in his foolhardy decision to even show up to meet Holly in the cafe which was almost certainly a trap. Whatever his motivation, Harry now stands surrounded in a dark tunnel with few options left to him, drawing in some of the cold breaths that could be his last.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.